King’s Acre/Mostyn Road, 21 April 2002
I don’t think I’ve ever preached on Noah’s Ark before! Odd, that – I have a feeling that it wasn’t part of the lectionary before they introduced this new one, and even now, it is an alternative! But, of course, it’s impossible to resist!
I see they have paired it with Jesus’ teachings about being the Good Shepherd, and I think in some ways the two stories may be connected. But let’s look first at the story of Noah’s Ark.
Of course, it’s so familiar as to need no introduction! We all know how God thought that the world he had made was so very wicked that he wanted to destroy it and start again from scratch. But as Noah and his family were good people, he decided to save them, and, while he was at it, to save the animals and birds, as they’d done nobody any harm. And so Noah was told to build the Ark, and he built it – if it was really the size it says in the Bible, it would have matched most bulk carriers today – and took two of every sort of animal, and maybe even seven pairs of the “clean” animals, and so on and so forth. We know the story. But is it true?
Almost every religion in the area has a flood story of some sort. It is almost universal. And I don’t know whether you saw it, but some time ago there was a fascinating programme on television that speculated whether the story might not have been caused by an earth tremor that caused a cliff to break, and the Black Sea to be formed. And, of course, archaeologists and those who know think that at various times in its history the Mediterranean sea was dry – the so-called “Pillars of Hercules”, the twin towers of rock that guard the entrance to it, one at Gibraltar and its twin on the coast of North Africa – may have once blocked off a dry valley. There are other legends, too – of Atlantis and that other place that is supposed to have drowned, whose name escapes me just now.
But whether there was a real Noah, and a real Ark, who knows? I don’t know whether there would ever be any proof of the sort that would satisfy archaeologists like my daughter, but does it matter? There are truer truths than historical truth! What matters about the story of Noah isn’t details like whether or not there were dinosaurs in the Ark – as if, but I did see it suggested quite seriously on a Christian web page, can you believe it? It’s not important whether there were only one breeding pair of each sort of animal, or seven pairs of some (the story isn’t very clear on that, as though two accounts have got mixed up, which is quite probable); it doesn’t even matter how the fish and sea-birds survived, and what Noah did about the insects and the kinds of animals that people haven’t even discovered yet! What does matter, of course, is what the story has to teach us. Is there anything we can learn from a story that was old when Jesus walked on this earth?
I think there is. I think this story can tell us a lot. Perhaps not so much about God’s character – do we today really believe in a God who would capriciously destroy the world? On the other hand, of course, we are told at the end of the story that God promised never to do such a thing again, which we can remember every time we see a rainbow. There’s a children’s song on the subject which finishes “Whenever you see a rainbow, remember God is Love”. Which is actually no bad thing to do, of course.
But I think the story, appropriately enough for this time of year, is about resurrection.
Whatever happened, it is obvious that there was a terrific cataclysm, and much, if not all, of the known world was destroyed. And yet God rebuilt it. The world survived. God used Noah and his family, so we are told, to repopulate the earth. God used the animals, birds and insects that had been stored in the ark to rebuild the ecology, and the world was raised from what must have seemed to be the end of everything.
Historically speaking, I suppose, this must have happened lots of times throughout the earth’s lifetime; we are told of cataclysm upon cataclysm, asteroid strikes that may have disposed of the dinosaurs, ice ages that may or may not have destroyed humanity, but in any case made life difficult for it, the great plagues that swept across Europe in the 14th century, destroying nearly half its population, the fearful wars in the last century, the first of which, between 1914 and 1918, decimated a generation of young men in western Europe; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that destroy cities and countries. And so it goes on. We – my generation, that is – grew up believing that we would be killed in a nuclear war almost any minute, a threat that hasn’t really ever gone away, although it has receded with the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The world isn’t designed to be stable and concrete. Change, often cataclysmic change, is the only constant. The Bible teaches us that one day this earth will come to a final conclusion, and there will be “A new heaven and a new earth” and, one gathers, permanent bliss. Well, that may well be so, but meanwhile we have this life to live first, a life in which things change as quickly as an aeroplane can fly into a tower block.
But there is always resurrection, always renewal. Most of us, I expect, have met with the risen Christ one way or another; we believe in the resurrection or we wouldn’t be here. We know the risen Christ, and we know, because of Christ, that life goes on. And we can experience that, as Noah and his family experienced it, in our own lives.
I don’t mean just life after death – although, as St Paul says, we’re going to look extremely stupid if that doesn’t happen – but also resurrection in our lives here on this earth. Jesus said, after all, as we heard in our first reading, that he came so that we could have life and have it abundantly, and I’m sure he didn’t just mean “pie in the sky when you die”. Sometimes, if life is particularly difficult, that may be all we have to cling on to, the hope that one day there will be a better world. But other times, who knows, a better life may be just round the corner. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, God always has a Plan B. God always knows the “what ifs”, the “ands” and the “buts”, and sometimes, when our hearts are breaking, God’s heart breaks, too. But then God does something about it. In the words of the lovely hymn we are going to sing in just a few minutes:
“When are hearts are grieving, wintry or in pain,
Then your touch can call us back to life again.
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.”
“Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been.” We have probably all seen the bleak, ploughed fields of a winter landscape, and we’ve also all seen the dreadful damage caused to fields and property by, for instance, the catastrophic flooding of a couple of winters ago. And yet we know, too, that the farmers will be out with their harrows and sowing-machines and fertilisers and so on, and those fields will soon be bearing crops again. Resurrection happens. Each spring we see proof of it, even here in London – look at the trees that Lambeth Council refers to as “Street furniture”, as though they weren’t growing, living things!
Resurrection happens, and we see the proof of it even here in London. Noah and his family came out of the Ark into a changed world, but one where they could make a new start, grow their families and their crops, their flocks and their herds, and build a life for themselves and their descendents. They had been, as it were, raised from death.
Of course, they had been given a place of safety. Noah had, we are told, been given very detailed instructions on how to build the ark – incidentally, if he had built it to the dimensions given, it would have been about the size of one of today’s larger bulk oil carriers! And he trusted God, and carried out the work as he had been told, because he knew how to recognise God’s voice. And Jesus reminds us how important that this is. “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
Jesus reminds us of the need to know his voice so that we don’t go off at a tangent, following the wrong leader. I know that sometimes we worry about this, being scared that we are going to get things wrong, but honestly, if we are serious about being God’s person, I don’t think it’s very likely. If Jesus is the gatekeeper, the door, then he’s not going to let us go off at too many tangents, or not for long! There’s a lovely passage in Isaiah that was one of the first I learnt when I became a Christian: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, `This is the way; walk in it.'”
“This is the way; walk in it”. We sometimes complain that we don’t hear God’s leading very clearly, at least, not as clearly as, for instance, Noah seemed to. But there are so many instances when we can turn round and say, “Oh, there God was leading me!” even if we didn’t see it at the time. We’ve probably all known those times. And often, they have led to times of resurrection for us – but it is only when we are experiencing the resurrection that we can see how God led us.
You probably know that anonymous poem that so many of us love, called “Footprints”:
“One night, a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it. “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you the most you would leave me.”
The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Noah and his family had to spend six weeks on the ark before it was safe to land, so we are told. But when they landed, they found the land had been raised from death to new life. They saw how God had led them. And we, too, see how God has led us, raised us, protected us, cared for us, and we are to believe that this love and care will continue on, from now into eternity, this side of the grave and beyond.
Jesus said “I am come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. Abundantly. Let’s trust God for that abundance, or, if life is too painful to do that right now, let’s just trust him for the touch that can call us back to life again. Amen.